Chris Robinson remembers Polish animator Jan Lenica and relates his life and art shaping times.
To have toiled and moiled through a lifesworth of delusions, for an approximate-minimum full-life's duration, and have it add in a flash to undifferentiated molecules on the slag heap of undifferentiated nothing -- now THAT is a frightening outcome to grapple with.
Geezer (2001), by Richard Meltzer
He was. He ain't. It's that simple. Time that once stood between him and a dreamless sleep collapsed into a rubble of ashes. It's not all bad; with the threat of mass extinction once again rearing its head at least Jan Lenica had the benefit to cease in his own individual way. He got out before we were all obliterated en mass, so at least there are a few of us left to go through his luggage. Aside from daughters, wives, family and friends, he also left behind some cartoons, posters and ideas that will enrich, provoke and amuse a few of the few of those with time on their meter.
When writing of those who have laid fresh tracks within the gates of Hades, we construct complimentary sentimental gushes to honour our 'old friend' and remember what a great person they were. I can't do that. I didn't know Jan Lenica. The fragment of Lenica I encountered sporadically through letter and sight over a three-month period in the summer of 2000 (we were honouring him at the Ottawa '00 International Animation Festival) was one of a grumpy old man who appeared unappreciative and uncooperative.
But you know what? That's what makes him so important to me. He was in his early 70s and suffering from diabetes and heart disease. I encountered a man who was tired and scared. I felt his pain, frustration, weakness and fear. He didn't hide it. He couldn't hide it. I saw his humanity in all its humility. He could hear the songs of the angels in the breezes behind him getting stronger and louder with each difficult breath. Each step was selective. Each response contained.
Now it isn't.
If Lenica had shown up with a rose in his lapel and played the role of grateful, polite diplomat, I would have appreciated it, but soon forgotten it. It would mean little. The darkness within Jan Lenica left an impression on me. His sourness led me to try and grasp why he was the way he was. He was a son, father, husband and friend, and worst of all, just a man. Jan Lenica's naked humility shattered my fears for a moment and inadvertently led me to reach farther inside to scour through my own blood and guts.
My STUFF aside, there is a danger in freely throwing roses on the dead and living. One of the most dangerous systems we've created is the myth of the hero. A bar has been set and more often than not it's bogus and unreachable even by those supposedly in possession of these ideals. The heroic system celebrates sameness. Sameness removes what is unique, diverse and contradictory from each of us. Heroism captures a fragment of a life and the tendency in our society is simply to re-write that life without the naughty bits. As such we grow up aspiring to become someone who never existed. We learn more from the shadows and shit holes than from the plastic palaces in which we often make believe.
"Know thyself," said a wise Greek. To know thyself, one must find oneself. To find oneself, one must search. To search is to live. To live is to know thyself.
We are always in the process of becoming. Life is a process. To stop is to die. The search for self is at the core of every Lenica film. His protagonists (think Jan Lenica as performed by Buster Keaton through Beckett and Ionesco and Gilliam) travel through a world of violence, paranoia, anxiety and absurdity. They do not know how to, nor sure that they want to, fit into an increasingly dehumanized society. Lenica's characters encounter various forms of oppression in the face of paranoia (Rhinoceros), language (A), exile (Labyrinth), humans, and even themselves. Each character is simply trying to define and establish a unique blip on life's map.
The characters mirror Lenica. Their search was his. He denied politics, but he was affected by it throughout his life. He was born in Poznan, Poland in 1928. Poland was an economically unstable country, but the Lenica family (father, Alfred was a musician) enjoyed a relatively cozy existence until 1939 when the Nazis forced the family into exile in Southern Poland. It was in exile that Jan Lenica began his career as an artist.
After the war, Poland was in a shambles, literally, spiritually and economically. The new generation of artists that emerged was characterized by black irony and sarcasm. They were fiercely against the old values of heroism, nationalism and other "outdated" values. (Of course, their youthful artistic revolt was itself romantic and heroic!) By late 1948 (a year after the Russians took control of Poland), Lenica was firmly established in the Polish graphic art scene. Later his drawings were rooted in black comedy, violence and paranoia. Lenica's success was, like many Polish artists, short lived. Stalinism cut off their voices in 1953.
After Stalin reaped what he sowed, things eased up a bit and artists began to re-emerge. At the same time, animation began to emerge in 1956. Not surprisingly, animation was viewed as a serious graphic art form as opposed to kiddie cartoons. Lenica, along with Walerian Borowcyzk, were among the first to make animation films in 1957 when they made the film Once Upon A Time. After two more collaborations, Lenica found work in Paris, Poland and Germany and made his most famous films, Monsieur Tete, Labyrinth,Rhinoceros, A and the short feature, Adam II.
Existential themes and an ironic tone aside, Lenica's films were intentionally primitive. The cut-out animation was awkward giving the characters a thoroughly dehumanized manner. His characters, modeled after Buster Keaton, had plain, deadpan faces as they moved about a world that was designed with more complexity often using cut out figures and photo collages.
By the 1980s, Lenica had received the flowers, heard the trumpets and stored the prizes. He moved to Berlin in 1984 where he taught poster design at a local arts school. He retired in 1994 and remained in Berlin until his death. In 2000, he was at work on a new short film -- the making of which was documented in the documentary film, The Island of Jan Lenica (Marcin Gyzinski, 2000) -- but it's not clear whether he completed the film.
At the end of William Faulkner's The Wild Palms, his protagonist, after being convicted of manslaughter for a failed abortion attempt, momentarily considers swallowing a cyanide capsule. Facing a life of grief in prison and without his lover, he chooses grief:
Jan Lenica gave me grief. That was it. That was all. To forget that is to forget Jan Lenica. To forget Jan Lenica is to forget life. To forget life is to be nothing. I will take grief.
Chris Robinson is the artistic director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival and founder and director of SAFO, the Ottawa International Student Animation Festival. He is editor of the ASIFA News. Robinson has curated film programs and served on festival juries throughout the world. He writes a monthly column ("The Animation Pimp") for Animation World Network and has written numerous articles on animation. His iconoclastic tendencies have led him to be called the "John Woo of diplomacy" and most recently, "the enfant terrible of animation" by Take One magazine. He is currently working on a book about something.